Candlemas is the colloquial name for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord which is celebrated on February 2. In the new calendar (1970), the Christmas season ends with the Baptism of the Lord in early January. However, traditionally, Candlemas was seen as the last day of the Christmas season. But what is Candlemas? To understand this feast, we must understand a bit about Jewish tradition and history.
Purification and Presentation
According to the Book of Leviticus (Lev. 12:1-4), when a woman bore a male child, she was considered “unclean” for seven days. Then, on the eighth day, the child was circumcised, in keeping with the covenant God made with Abraham.
Then, for the remaining thirty-three days, the woman stayed home to recover and stop post-natal bleeding. After forty days, the parents went to the Temple in Jerusalem for the rite of purification. A sin offering was then offered of a lamb or, for those who are poor, two pigeons and two turtledoves.
Redemption of the First-Born Son
In Exodus, God spoke to Moses and said: “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine (Ex. 13:1).” By the time of the birth of Jesus, this constituted a temple tax of 5 shekels which the parents gave to the priest to offer the Passover sacrifice. By this sacrifice the first-born son was “redeemed” or bought back from slavery.
In the Gospel of St. Luke, the redemption is not mentioned in relationship to the presentation of the Lord. Instead, there is an emphasis on consecration to God. This shows how Jesus does not need redemption, but, rather, is the perfect sacrifice which will be offered to free us from the slavery of sin eternally.
Prophecy of Simeon
During the presentation of the Lord, a just man named Simeon came to the Temple. He had waited his whole life for the coming of the Messiah. He held baby Jesus in his arms saying, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel (Lk. 2:29-32).”
In other words, the Messiah who he held in his arms was coming for the righteous and the sinner, for the Jew and the gentile. He then turned to Mary and Joseph and said to them, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed (Lk. 2:34-35).”
It is these words of Simeon which give rise to the idea of Candlemas. For Jesus, is a light to the nations. He is the light coming into the world to banish sin and darkness. He is our Priest, Prophet, and King. This is revealed by the cryptic words of Simeon.
Think about your own “presentation” at your Baptism. The Paschal Candle, which is first lit at the Easter Vigil is the preeminent “Light of Christ” in liturgy, is lit at your Baptism. From that light is lit a smaller baptismal candle. This connection is not lost on the Church. Since the seventh century, candles have been blessed on February 2nd, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. This is where we get the name “Candlemas.”
The Original Groundhog Day
Candlemas is the original Groundhog Day. In the United States, Protestants decided to replace the Catholic feast with a secular festival. There is an old English rhyme which says, “If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, Winter will have another flight; but if it be dark with clouds and rain, Winter is gone, and will not come again.”
In other words, if the sun is brighter than the candles of Candlemas, then Winter will last for a longer time. But if the candles of Candlemas outshine the sun on February 2nd, then Winter is nearing an end. So goes the farmer tradition.